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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 March 2007, 10:30 GMT
Gulf Louvre deal riles French art world
By Henri Astier
BBC News

Louvre in Paris
The Louvre in Paris will benefit from the deal, officials insist
A storm is raging in France over the government's decision to build a branch of the Louvre in a Gulf state - the first-ever foreign annex of the world-famous art gallery.

The controversy is not over public spending on culture - French taxpayers think nothing of subsidising films to the tune of 500m euros a year ($700m; 350m).

The row centres on the fact that France stands to make money from the deal, which was signed in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

A good deal of money, in fact. Abu Dhabi - the capital of the United Arab Emirates - will pay hundreds of millions of euros over 30 years for the privilege of displaying works from French museums.

The oil-rich emirate will pay 400 million euros ($524m; 272m) just for the Louvre name. The first payment, 150m euros, will be made within a month, according to the French news agency AFP.

This, according to critics, amounts to using France's artistic heritage for basely commercial ends.

"Our museums are not for sale", proclaims an online petition signed by 4,700 people - including many curators, art historians, and archaeologists.

Cultural exception

The French culture ministry, however, says the deal represents an "exceptional chance" for the French art world.

The purpose of a gallery should not be to make money
Didier Rykner
La Tribune de l'Art

The deal, signed by Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and Sheikh Sultan bin Tannoun, paves the way for a new "Louvre Abu Dhabi", due to open in 2012.

The architect will be French. Construction costs will be borne by the emirate.

Most controversially, the agreement will allow Abu Dhabi to lease works from the Louvre and other French museums for durations of up to two years.

This is what many in the French art world find offensive.

"The purpose of a gallery should not be to make money," arts writer Didier Rykner told the BBC news website.

"People talk about a cultural exception for cinema. There should also be a cultural exception for art."

No comment

Mr Rykner, who drew up the petition and posted it on his website, La Tribune de l'Art, says the project was not designed with the best interest of art in mind.

Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is keen to expand its cultural offerings

French museums will be deprived of major works, which will be displayed in a "random, unscientific" way in Abu Dhabi, Mr Rykner contends.

He also points out that transporting hundreds of fragile works is fraught with risk.

"The logic of this project is purely political and diplomatic," says Mr Rykner, who points out that the UAE is a major ally and customer of France.

He says most French art historians and curators agree with him - although many, who are state employees, have not signed his petition for fear of damaging their careers.

The government, meanwhile, has remained tight-lipped about the deal. When contacted by the BBC, the culture ministry declined to comment ahead of the signing.

Louvre President Henri Loyrette has defended the agreement, but said he "understands the concerns".

He has announced a new body, mainly composed of curators, to oversee the "scientific quality of the project and the respect of ethical rules".

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